04 Nov / The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
Bolanle is the only one of Baba Segi’s four wives who is literate, has a college education, and retains her own name. When she becomes the prized final wife of the swaggering patriarch, she is immediately vilified by her fellow wives who are now solely (and proudly) identified by the name of each of their first-born children. She remains submissive yet unflinching of her predecessors’ wrath, even offering to teach the women to read, to open their world, but she is dismissively shunned.
When Bolanle does not provide impatient Baba Segi with more progeny, she quickly loses her favored status, and yet her empty womb only earns her further suffering at the whim of dominating matriarch Iya Segi, simpering Iya Tope, and vengeful Iya Femi. Alone and aching, Bolanle agrees to Baba Segi’s demand that she go to the hospital and find out once and for all what is wrong with her. That fateful visit sets off the chain of events that will change the lives of every member of the sprawling household …
In an article she wrote for London’s Guardian newspaper, first-time novelist Lola Shoneyin (who’s also published three poetry collections and a children’s title) reveals that her mother was the daughter of a man who had five wives. After sharing an 11-year-“modern marriage” with his first wife (Shoneyin’s grandmother) with divided domestic duties and being a “hands-on father” to his first two children, Shoneyin’s grandfather ascended to an inherited position as a traditional ruler and took four more wives – “women who desired his prized royal seed.” Hearing her mother’s stories of the polygamous family – the plotting, manipulations, ever-present jealousies – left Shoneyin fascinated and horrified. And gave her just the right fodder for her writing.
Shoneyin cites a 2008 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey that reported a third of Nigeria’s married women are in polygamous unions, while 16% of married men aged 15-49 have more than one wife. Shoneyin calls polygamy a “national embarrassment in any country that fantasises [British spelling] about progress and development. Polygamy devalues women …”
In her disturbing novel, Shoneyin captures the helpless machinations that women feel forced to commit in order to survive, to feed their children, to hold on to any semblance of control of their own lives. The stories and secrets are cleverly revealed in fractured chapters, the narrator changing without immediate identification as if to keep the reader constantly guessing, not unlike the uncertain wives who are forced to wait on the whims of their one shared husband. Women not only turn against one another, but they must pass on that denigrating, clawing behavior to their daughters; women become their own victimizers … and the results will, of course, prove deadly. Baba Segi is merely a vessel … the women will need no help in ruining his – and their own – lives …